By the time Attorney General Greg Abbott came to the podium last week at the National Right to Life Convention in Grapevine, Gov. Rick Perry had already set the social media networks ablaze with a controversial and fiery speech, so reporters were gathered in anticipation.
Here was Perry’s heir apparent, after all. What would he say about the chaotic mess in the Texas Legislature, where a bill heavily restricting abortion lay in tatters and liberal activists were cheering Sen. Wendy Davis, the filibustering Democrat who had made it possible?
Nothing, as it turned out. Not a word in his speech. Not a word to the clamoring reporters.
It was no surprise to those who know Abbott. Compared with the swaggering Perry or the smash-talking U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Abbott comes off as cautious and measured. (Or, to Democratic critics, calculating and ruthless.)
“He is very methodical in his planning, more than the normal politician,” said Pat Mizell of Houston, a longtime friend and fellow lawyer. “He really has not been a big risk taker politically.”
Abbott declined a request to be interviewed for this article.
When Abbott was 16, his father died. Then a freak accident in 1984, when he was in his late 20s, left him paralyzed and using a wheelchair. So he learned the value of patience and discipline at an early age.
Now he has a chance to apply those lessons again. Abbott is within sniffing distance of the Texas Governor’s Mansion, and he is not about to ruin his chances with a rash move or an unscripted remark.
Word leaked out this week that Perry would unveil his “exciting future plans” on Monday. Abbott then announced his own plans for a meet-and-greet the following weekend. He did not say for what office he was running.
Given Perry’s penchant for unexpected announcements, a run for an unprecedented fourth term cannot be ruled out, though speculation persists that he will step aside. Abbott is taking no chances. His campaign is giving Perry a wide berth, lest Perry feels backed into a corner.
If Perry runs for re-election, Abbott will have to decide whether to run for something else or wage a fight against a close ally and friend.
If Perry does move on, Abbott, who has the biggest war chest in state politics, would become the instant front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor. Tom Pauken, a former state Republican Party chairman, hopes to make the primary competitive, but it is an uphill climb. And despite the new energy that Democrats are drawing from the abortion battles, the odds are stacked against them. No Democrat has won statewide office since 1994, and the state’s last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, was elected in 1990.
The son of an insurance salesman and a homemaker, Abbott was born in Wichita Falls, moved to East Texas as a youngster and finished high school in Duncanville, a Dallas suburb.
In the faded pages of the 1976 Duncanville Panther Tale yearbook, Abbott looks more like an aspiring hippie than the son of a Goldwater Republican — let alone a future Texas governor. He has bushy brown hair down to his shoulders and demonstrates an affinity for bell-bottom jeans. Abbott’s gregariousness developed at an early age. He was voted “class king” in elementary school, and his senior class at Duncanville chose him as “best all around.” He was named president of the National Honor Society chapter. He was a copy editor for the school yearbook and joined a club for aspiring young journalists.
He found passion in track and field, winning the 880-yard run in the Duncanville Relays his senior year.
On July 14, 1984, Abbott — by then a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School — used his legs for the last time.
Taking a break from work at a Houston law firm while studying for the bar exam, Abbott went for a run with a friend. In a recent campaign video, he explains what happened next.
“Bam! A huge explosion-type sound occurred right next to me,” he says. “Next thing I know, I was down, because this huge tree had fallen on me.”
The 75-foot-tall oak tree crushed his lower spine and left him instantly paralyzed.
In the immediate aftermath, friends say Abbott was under the illusion that he might walk again. But his injuries were too severe. By all accounts he approached his recovery with grit and determination.
Kent Sullivan, a lawyer who worked with Abbott at the time of the accident, said he was amazed at how quickly his injured colleague learned to drive and get himself around after losing the use of his legs.
“He could maneuver that chair so that he’d be in the car in the seat and his chair would be behind us in the backseat. I would sort of offer to help him but he’d usually do it himself,” Sullivan said. “He was very nimble at it and he was very determined. He very quickly gained a sense of independence.”
To this day he still approaches his disability with humor.
Retelling a favorite joke at last week’s anti-abortion convention, Abbott said, “For those of you who haven’t heard the story, I see you shaking your heads, wondering, how slow was that guy jogging to get hit by a tree?”
At his old law firm in Houston, Butler & Binion, Abbott once showed up disguised as a Meals on Wheels volunteer, his friend and former employee Chris Martin recalled. He said they nicknamed Abbott “Wheels” in those days.
Abbott took the accident very seriously when it happened, of course. He sued the homeowner whose tree fell on him, along with a tree service company. According to news reports from 2002 — during his first race for attorney general — Abbott won a settlement of more than $10 million.
When Abbott made “greedy” trial lawyers a target during that campaign, Democrats and some of their supporters accused him of hypocrisy. After all, he didn’t hesitate to avail himself of the services of a trial lawyer when he needed one, they said.
Aides to Abbott, who has supported Republican-backed measures restricting lawsuits, say current law still allows a person sustaining such an injury to recover the same amounts, including money for noneconomic damages like pain and suffering.
After passing the bar exam and practicing civil defense law, Abbott ran successfully for state district judge in 1992 and was then appointed to the Texas Supreme Court in 1995 by George W. Bush, who was then governor. Now, as the longest-serving attorney general in state history, Abbott likes to say that he wakes up every day, sues the federal government and then goes home — a reference to the 27 lawsuits he has filed against the Obama administration.
Democrats say Abbott has done little more than use his office to promote himself and advance his political career, a rap Abbott’s campaign calls “spurious partisan charges.” Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist, describes Abbott as a fierce partisan who panders to his base and still has not proven he can take a punch.
“He’s never had a competitive race,” Angle said.
He may or may not have one in 2014. But Mizell, Abbott’s lawyer friend from Houston, said Democrats were wrong to question his mettle. Recalling Abbott’s first judicial race, Mizell said, “It wasn’t enough for him to win.”
“It was more important for him to crush the other side,” he said. “If he runs for governor, I think everyone will see how competitive he is.”
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.